The New York Times recently ran a piece titled, Rush Limbaugh Rallies Listeners to Donald Trump’s Defense. In reading Rush’s full transcript, I found that headline a bit unfair. On Monday, he did cite ex-CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s defense of Trump—which I (and others) found to be unpersuasive. But his comments were far more nuanced than the Times’ headline suggested.
Apparently Limbaugh felt that way, too. “Because I don’t join in the condemnation of Trump,” he explained on Tuesday, “I might as well be supporting him [in the media’s mind]. “I’m not coming to the rescue of anybody,” he added.
Fair enough, all that. So while it would be a stretch to ding Limbaugh for coming to Trump’s rescue, I’m equally interested in what Rush Limbaugh did not do. He did not take this opportunity to help the Republican Party and the conservative movement by excommunicating Donald Trump.
And that, I would suggest, wasn’t just a missed opportunity, but rather an abdication of responsibility.
As I’ve written on numerous occasions, one of the major problems confronting the conservative movement today is that individual actors have perverse incentives to tarnish the collective brand.
We see this play out when politicians like Trump say controversial things for the sake of buzz and poll numbers, but also true of conservative “personalities” who, after all, also need buzz and ratings and page views. Everyone is looking out for themselves, not conservatism or conservatives in general. It’s basically a “tragedy of the commons”-type situation, where there are no adults looking out for the common good.
But with great power comes great responsibility. And Limbaugh is one of the few leaders in the conservative movement who has the megaphone and the juice to enforce discipline and good behavior, the way Bill Buckley did when he chose to write Ayn Rand, the Birchers, and a whole host of other unpleasant factions, out of the conservative movement.
Trump, who until quite recently was a pro-choice, Hillary Clinton-supporting believer in single-payer health insurance, is no conservative. And while many of the usual suspects—Ann Coulter, Ted Cruz, Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, et al.—are providing Trump aid and comfort, one wonders whether they’re using him to advance their own self interest. (Even Bill Kristol was playing this game until it finally became untenable.)
For Coulter and company, it’s easy to see that their popularity is the result of reflecting the whims of the masses of grassroots conservatives, and that this audience is (for today, at least) somewhat enamored with Trump. These conservative personalities are not leaders, that is; they’re followers, and they’re cozying up to The Donald to leech off his popularity with some of the base, boost their ratings, and prove their “authenticity” by associating with the candidate most loathed by “the establishment.”
This is not to suggest that nobody on the right has the cajones to stand up to Trump. In fairness, The Wall Street Journal has pointed out Trump’s horrible record and rhetoric, but their audience tends to be free market or fiscal conservatives—not the more angry, populist-leaning sort who listen to talk radio, read Breitbart.com, and might be susceptible to someone like Trump. These are the people who Limbaugh, who is still the king of talk radio, could dissuade from backing a charlatan like The Donald, and his refusal to thus far is truly dispiriting.
But there is at least one conservative blogger and talk radio host who is presenting an intellectually honest critique of Donald Trump. Although Erick Erickson suggests the establishment is ultimately responsible for creating the environment where Trump would flourish, he pulls no punches in a recent blog post.
Erickson also notes (and this really can’t be said enough) that Trump was “a Hillary Clinton donor,” a supporter of a “Canadian style universal healthcare system,” a past “supporter of abortion rights,” someone who told MSNBC he was “evolving on gay marriage,” and someone who thought Mitt Romney’s rhetoric about illegal immigrants was too harsh.
Erickson is exactly right. And while he certainly qualifies as a prominent conservative opinion leader, it’s a real shame that he’s one of the few in his space willing to tell grassroots conservatives the truth about their phony new hero.
Why would any real conservative want to defend this guy? Or, more to the point, why wouldn’t they show some courage and openly condemn him?